Publisher: Walker Books.
This middle-grade children’s fantasy novel follows Arthur, an anthropomorphic fox who lives at the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an orphanage headed by the tyrannical Miss Carbunkle. More of a workhouse, the conditions are squalid and the young animal hybrids receive very little food, warmth, or comfort, and are subject to long hours of arduous work. With the help of his new friend Trinket, he manages to escape on a journey to find out who he is.
The world building in The Wonderling is one of it’s more wondrous qualities. The dire orphanage and Lumentown have a Victorian feel to them. The gentrification of the town are stark in contrast and highlight the class distinctions of the aristocracy and working class populations. When Arthur goes to Lumentown he is forced to become part of a pickpocket gang to survive, at once nodding to works like Oliver Twist. Mira Bartok also dips into the world of steampunk as she explores retro technology, particularly with the character of Trinket who is obsessed with inventions. The cobblestone streets, the pitch-black mines, and mysterious forests add to action-packed narrative.
Accompanying the text are numerous beautifully drawn illustrations by Mira Bartok that reflect the wonderful universe she has explored in the story and the scenes that fill the pages. Readers, especially those of a younger demographic, will be quite taken by these drawings that are reminiscent of classic illustrated books. The foundlings – animal hybrids – are particularly interesting as they create a cast of diverse characters, adding to the wonder of the fantasy universe.
One of the issues with the novel is Arthur’s passivity. The main focus of the narrative is Arthur’s journey out of the orphanage and into Lumentown to find out his own identity and where he comes from. The problem is that Arthur doesn’t make any conscious decisions. His journey is decided for him by others. Every action in his journey is brought forward through being told by someone else – the decision to escape the orphanage, the decision to go to Lumentown, his escape from mines. Understandably, a young teen who has grown up in detrimental conditions may have low self-esteem and developmental issues, which Arthur exhibits, but by the end of the novel, with greater confidence, he should at least have some characteristic growth and have more agency. A particular issue I had was that Arthur, who doesn’t know his real name and hence has many pseudonyms is given the name Arthur by Trinket. He doesn’t give himself the name, which I feel is an important aspect of self-identification.
Overall, it is an enjoyable, exciting middle-grade novel with suburb world building and beautiful illustrations.